“Every man’s got a little bad in him.”
Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw is a brisk noir novel crammed with secret cults and Lovecraftian monsters. More importantly, it’s a story about domestic violence and toxic masculinity. It opens with a haunted 10-year-old boy hiring one Mister Persons. Mister Persons is an ancient, psychic thing wearing the body of an aged PI. As the young man plants his piggy bank on Mister Persons’s desk he drops his bomb-shell: his step-dad is a monster, and he wants to hire another monster to kill him.
The job takes Mister Persons through the decaying homes, restaurants and factories of working-class London. Every step of the way he’s confronted with body-horror mutants and rebuffed by scared bystanders. An infection is worming through the homes of London, one that warps human mass into a shifting soup of eyes, fangs and spores. Throughout the novel people look the other way, too weighed down by daily life to fight the beasts living in their husbands and fathers.
Khaw does a beautiful job of infusing Mister Persons with reluctant menace. It becomes clear early on that his hardboiled persona is like a sort of memetic cage, channeling his impulses into a fascimile of humanity. Mister Persons internal world is described in smooth, hard-boiled prose, slightly at odds with the modern vernacular of the people he runs into. He deviates most when describing human body language, viewed with the alien precision of an entomologist dissecting a spider. The other monsters in Khaw’s London are less refined, their language degrading into some eldritch tongue as they lose their grips on the identities they’ve stolen.
Mister Persons is more eloquent, more refined, and perhaps more conflicted, but he’s no less dangerous than the beasts infecting London. Khaw shows this in distressingly familiar terms. We see him loom over abused women, violate strangers with a casual touch, and pick up other people’s kids at school, with bystanders whispering at the edges. His very presence is invasive, opening up telepathic streams. He’s tempted to write this telepathic violation off as something natural, like breathing, but even he knows that’s a weak excuse. Persons doesn’t rationalize his existence so much as fantasize about a better one. He returns again and again to fantasies about heroism without ever really indulging. “I’m not one for a fine touch,” he tells himself. “I’m a man.” But he’s not a man. He’s some kind of thing– a psychic parasite warping the flesh of its host body. Unless, of course, that’s all a ‘man’ is.
I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for media that reworks Lovecraft’s mythos into something more personal. While the uncaring gaze of the cosmos isn’t without its charms it loses its punch once you’ve digested a bit of existentialism. Khaw’s horrors are different. The Abyss may still lurk in the background but its pointy, scary bits are not just human, they’re familiar. If anything, the bubbling body-horror scenes help take the edge of the nauseating subtext of gnawing capitalism, domestic abuse and useless bystanders.